Glossary of Songwriting Terms

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This page is going to talk about things like "hooks" and "bridges" and "slant rhymes." And LOTS more, but at the moment, we're just trying to get things set up enough to cross-check our indexes, and establish our formatting. So the real definitions will be plugged in later.

A

A - A key that violin and mandolin players like to play in, and which most autoharps can't play at all. See the CreekDontRise.com article "Making Your Autoharp Folk-Friendly for more explanations.

Annie - A person to take a load off, according to a song by "The Band," which seems to have 129 verses.

B

B - A key that Hillsong used to pitch their demos in, leading to great consternation among worship bands led by singers who don't play instruments and couldn't understand why wind players, forced to play in seven or eight sharps, were having so much trouble with the song.

Bridge - A transitional passage that comes some time before the last chorus, perhaps between repetitions of the chorus, or perhaps before the last verse of a song. The British call this the "middle eight." It's primary function in pop songs is to restore interest toward the end of the song by going to a different tune and rhyme pattern momentarily before going back to the chorus with the "hooks." In Country songs, the bridge often brings in extra context that reveals a deeper meaning not immediately evident in the chorus or first two verses. In Tin Pan Alley songs, the bridge often acts as a quasi-verse, since the true "verse" is often a "throwaway" introduction to the song. In Folk, Folk-Rock, and traditional Bluegrass, an instrumental break often fulfills a similar function as the bridge.

C

C - A key that both guitars and out-of-the-box autoharps can play, which makes it good for playing "Wildwood Flower."

Chorus - In modern usage, the part of the song that is repeated, usually after each verse. "Refrain" would be a better word for this, although folks hardly ever use that term any more. The term started long ago when everyone in the band - or in the room - would join in on every refrain. In most songs, the chorus is the same every time, but in a few, there are changes - an example of a minor change is the last line of the choruse of "Margaritaville." In contemporary worship services, a "chorus" is typically a song in which all or part is repeated several times - largely an outgrowth of the Charismatic movement, in which just the choruses of songs like "Power in the Blood" were sung over and over in enthusiastic services.

Collaboration - When songwriters work together on a song. They agree ahead of time to share credit and not to take any ideas they've worked on together out of the room to finish on their own or with someone else.

D

D - The easiest key to play on guitar. As a result, the most common key in Folk and Country music.

Dominant - In any key, the chord based on the fifth note of the scale is the most likely chord to be used besides the tonic (root, or first) chord. In the key of C, G is the dominant. In the key of G, D is the dominant. In the key of D, A is the dominant, and so on.

Dominant Seventh - A "flattened seventh" chord based on the dominant chord of the key. In many kinds of music, the dominant is almost always played with the seventh added. For example, in the key of C, G is usually played as a G7 (G, B, D, F). The seventh is natural, because you're in the key of C, and it is probably going to resolve gracefully down to an E when you get back to the tonic (root or first) chord. If you were in the key of G, the seventh would probably be sharpened (G, B, D, F#), so classical musicians call G, B, D, F a "flattened seventh" chord. But dominant sevenths are so common in all popular music styles that they are shown simply as G7, D7 (D, F#, A, C), A7 (A, C#, E, G), and so on. If the seventh ISN'T flattened, they call that a "major seventh" chord.

F

Figurative Language - Language that means something that is not literal but provides a depth of meaning you couldn't ordinarily convey in the same number of words. Do you remember studying symbolism, metaphors, and so on in school? They work in song lyrics as well as they work in poetry. But be careful not to be cliched.

Fine - If pronounced "FEEnay," the end of a song. If pronounced "FINe," how your friends and family tell you they feel about your songwriting so they won't hurt your feelings.

G

G - The Blues key in which cover bands jam when they've run out of songs they've rehearsed together.

H

Hook - The part of a song that makes it catchy or memorable. It may be the first line of the chorus, as in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Or it may be elsewhere in the song, as long as it's repeated. Most songs that get played on the radio these days have a compelling hook.

I

Imagery - Word pictures that appeal to the senses. "Periwinkles," "coffee grounds," and "gun shots," reach the listener more directly than "flowers," "bitter taste," and "loud noise." Even better are words or phrases that provide specifics related to the topic of the song or the type of listener you're trying to reach. When I say "red dirt road," "flooded rain gutter," or "beat-up Falcon with the trunk lid tied down," you get the picture - literally.

J

Joy - The third word in the name usually given to certain excerpts of Beethoven's ninth symphony.

K

Keyboard - In music, usually a row of levers called "keys" that control some sort of tone generation - on a piano, the keys cause a felt-covered hammer to strike tuned wires. On an accordion, the keys open valves, allowing air pressure to vibrate reeds.

L

Listen - What clients often fail to do to my recommendations.

M

Major Seventh - A chord that includes the seventh note of the scale that starts with the root note of the chord. In C, a Major 7th chord is sometimes shown as Cmaj7, and is played C, E, G, B. This is in contrast to what is usually called a "seventh" chord and is actually a "flatted" seventh" chord (C, E, G, Bb).

Metaphor - A broad category of figurative language that applies characteristics of one object to another object or person. Calling a man an eel would be one kind of metaphor. Simily, metonymy and synecdoche are two others.

Metonymy - Referring to something by naming something associated with it. Pronounced "meh TONN uh mee." Common examples would be using "crown" to represent "king," or "pen" to represent "writer."

Middle Eight - What British songwriters call a bridge, because it's often eight measures long. See "Bridge."

Minor Chord - A three-note chord in which the second note is one-and-a-half steps above the tonic, and the third note is two full steps above that. For example, an A minor chord (shown as Am) is A, C, E. Although some songs are based on minor keys, most minor chords occur in songs placed in major keys, and are related to the scale in which the song is placed. So in the key of C, the chords D, E, and A are normally minor.

Minor SeventhMozart - A famous composer whose name occured to me when I was trying to find a placeholder for the letter "M."

N

Nit-Picking - What overly-sensitive people whose songs and other writing I review accuse me of, usually when I bring a gross mistake to their attention.

O

Open Harmony - When the notes in a chord are spread out instead as close together as they can be. An open C chord might be C, G, E, C, with the last C two octaves over the first. A closed C chord might be C, E, G, C, with the last C one octave over the first.

P

Piano - Play quietly. Also an abbreviation for "Piano-Forte," so named because could play as loudly as a harpsichord and as quietely as a virginal.

Q

Quietly - The way you play passages marked with an italic "p." (See "Piano")

R

Refrain - A seldom-used word that used to mean what "chorus" does now. That said, in some older kinds of music, lines that everyone could join in on were repeated within the verses. "Deck the Halls" has two refrains and no actual "chorus" in the modern sense. I only share that to remind you that there are no rules for how you structure your songs.

Relative Minor - A chord based on the sixth note of a major scale. In the key of C, Am (A, C, E) is the relative minor. Relative minors have many uses, including substituting for the tonic (root or first) chord.

Rhythm - What Gene Kelley has in An American in Paris.

S

Selah - According to the satirical site, Babylon Bee, ancient Hebrew for "take a long, self-indulgent electric guitar solo here."

Simile - A kind of metaphor in which the comparison is stated with words such as "like" or "as." "You're a maggot." is a metaphor but not a simile. "You're as vile as a maggot" is a simile, though not a very good one. I'll try to come up with something better later.

Song - A musical piece that has both a tune and lyrics sung to that tune. "Found a Peanut" is a song. The 1812 Overture is not.

Synecdoche - A word that songwriters never use, but a device they use often. Pronounced "sin Ek duh kee." It usually refers to using some part to represent the whole. Shakespeare used a synecdoche when he wrote "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes." "Eyes" represent the men who are ostensibly holding him in disdain, but by just saying "eyes" he gives you a strong impression of people giving him haughty looks. When Peter said, "The feet of the men who carried your husband out are at the door," that was a synecdoche. In a broader sense, when Leonard Cohen writes "You don't really care for music, do you?" he's really implying that the addressee is devoid of a normal human range of experience and emotion.

T

Tempo - How fast the pulses that control the speed of the song come together. A slow song may have 60 "beats" per minute. A fast song may have 120 "beats" per minute.

Tension - A harmony term that describes harmonies that "need" to resolve to other harmonies. The most common example in popular music is the "Dominant Seventh" chord, which "needs" to resolve to the Tonic. As an example, C7 (C,G,E, Bb) has two notes - C and Bb - that are in "tension" with each other. In most cases, the next chord will be F (probably voiced in the inversion C,F,A) The Bb has slid nicely down to A, which is feeling quite agreeable with the other notes in the chord, and so there is no tension to speak of (until Eb drops in for a visit, demanding that the F7 chord "resolve" to a Bb). There are many other note combinations that can cause tension, of course. Like the half-step interval of the violins in the Psycho shower scene.

By the way, the pattern of "tension" and "release" was key to Schoenberg's "twelve-tone" compositions, but Arnold liked to have harmonies that were in "tension" "resolving" to other harmonies with different kinds of tension. So one chord that sounds dissonant to our ears was followed by another, and then by another, with the result that when Arnold finally has mercy on us, you see audience members almost sighing with relief. If you want your audience coming away from your concerts with something bordering on a stomach ache, keep this technique in mind.

U

Unleavened Bread - The first phrase that occurred to me when I was looking for a placeholderfor "U." Probably because I've been rereading Deuteronomy (the Bible book, not the character in Cats.

W

What Were You Thinking? - The question people ask me more often than any other.


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